21st Amendment

On December 5, 1933, the 21st Amendment to the United States Constitution became the only constitutional amendment to repeal another amendment. This amendment revoked or abolished the 18th Amendment, which prohibited the production, transportation, and sale of alcohol in the United States. The 21st Amendment also has the distinction of being the only amendment ratified by state ratifying convention, rather than by state legislatures. The 21st Amendment allows states to regulate or ban the sale or delivery of alcohol. To explore this concept, consider the 21st Amendment definition.

Definition of 21st Amendment


  1. The 21st Amendment to the United States Constitution repeals the 18th Amendment.


Ratified by Congress on December 5, 1933

Repealing the 18th Amendment

In the late 1800s, proponents of making alcohol illegal began cropping up around the United States, lobbying the public to ban alcohol, claiming it would eliminate many of society’s problems, including poverty and violence. In 1838, Massachusetts became the first state to regulate alcohol, with a temperance law prohibiting businesses or consumers from selling spirits in quantities less than 15 gallons. The law was repealed only two years later, but a precedent had been set, leading to similar laws in other states.

After the U.S. entered World War I in 1917, President Woodrow Wilson established temporary prohibition against alcohol for the purpose of saving grain for the production of food. That same year, a constitutional amendment for prohibition was proposed in Congress. This 18th Amendment was ratified by Congress in a record 11 months, and took effect a year later, on January 17, 1920.

Prohibition was unpopular, however, and crime rates under Prohibition skyrocketed. Bootlegging became a profitable enterprise in some areas, while mobsters, such as Al Capone, took full advantage of the aggressive and highly profitable black market for alcoholic beverages. Law enforcement and the federal government were wholly powerless to meet the country’s descent into lawlessness.

21st Amendment History

By the late 1920s, the public began openly disagreeing with the prohibition movement, blaming it for an increase in crime and a decrease in much-needed jobs. Soon, the nation had bigger problems than alcohol, as it entered the Great Depression. Franklin D. Roosevelt based his presidential campaign on a call to repeal prohibition, and soundly defeated incumbent Herbert Hoover.

In 1933, Congress proposed the 21st Amendment to the Constitution, which would repeal the 18th Amendment, ending prohibition. The proposed amendment was sent to state ratifying conventions for approval. The 21st Amendment became effective on December 13, 1933.

What is the 21st Amendment

The 21st Amendment to the U.S. Constitution repealed prohibition, which had been established by the 18th Amendment, which was ratified on January 16, 1919.

The 21st Amendment reads:

“Section 1. The eighteenth article of amendment to the Constitution of the United States is hereby repealed.

Section 2. The transportation or importation into any state, territory, or possession of the United States for delivery or use therein of intoxicating liquors, in violation of the laws thereof, is hereby prohibited.

Section 3. This article shall be inoperative unless it shall have been ratified as an amendment to the Constitution by conventions in the several states, as provided in the Constitution, within seven years from the date of the submission hereof to the states by the Congress.”

How a Constitutional Amendment is Ratified

Article V of the U.S. Constitution requires two steps in the amendment process. The first step is to propose an amendment, which may be done in two ways: (1) Congress may propose an amendment if two-thirds of the members of both the House of Representatives and the Senate vote in favor of it, or (2) the states may propose an amendment if two-thirds of their legislatures call for a constitutional convention for the purpose of proposing an amendment. Once proposed, the amendment must be ratified before it can become part of the Constitution.

Since the ratification of the Constitution in 1789, state legislatures have never requested a constitutional convention. In the case of the 21st Amendment, Congress directed the states to call for ratification by convention, rather than by the states’ legislatures. This is the only amendment that has ever been ratified by state convention.

Article V of the United States Constitution reads, in part:

“The Congress, whenever two thirds of both Houses shall deem it necessary, shall propose Amendments to this Constitution, or, on the Application of the Legislatures of two thirds of the several States, shall call a Convention for proposing Amendments, which, in either Case, shall be valid to all Intents and Purposes, as Part of this Constitution, when ratified by the Legislatures of three fourths of the several States, or by Conventions in three fourths thereof, as the one or the other Mode of Ratification may be proposed by the Congress …”

For example:

In Vermont, once Congress proposes a federal constitutional amendment, the governor of the state has 60 days to call for an election of delegates to the convention. In total, 14 people are elected throughout the state by the vote of the people, for the purpose of reviewing and voting on the proposed amendment.

This election is required to take place between 3 and 12 months after the call for a constitutional convention, and the actual convention must then be held within 30 days after the end of the election. A constitutional convention is held at the state’s capital.

Court Rulings Concerning the 21st Amendment

Rhode Island Ban on Advertising of Liquor Prices

The Supreme Court heard the case of 44 Liquormart, Inc. v. Rhode Island in 1996, after Rhode Island implemented laws prohibiting advertisements containing prices of alcoholic beverages being sold to the general public. The Court ruled that, although the 21st Amendment empowers the states to regulate the sales of alcohol, the state cannot use the 21st Amendment to curtail freedom of speech as guaranteed by the First Amendment. In response to the state’s claim that it had enacted the statute to protect consumers from “commercial harm,” the Court pointed out that such “protective measures” actually served to obstruct public choice.

States Prohibiting Out-of-State Wineries from Shipping Alcohol

In the 2005 Supreme Court case of Granholm v. Heald, the court considered the constitutionality of two states’ ban on out-of-state wineries shipping wine to consumers within their borders. At the time, laws in Michigan and New York only allowed such wineries to ship their products to wholesalers in the states, and not directly to consumers. In an eight year battle, small wineries battled these laws, seeing direct sales as a growing source of income, were it allowed.

The Supreme Court’s 5-4 decision that the states’ laws on this matter were indeed unconstitutional lay in the fact that the purpose of the 21st Amendment was to return the nation to the status quo that had existed prior to Prohibition. Although the 21st Amendment gives states the power to regulate whether or not alcohol is legal within their borders, it does not give them the power to discriminate against products from out of state, which violates the Dormant Commerce Clause. The Court ruled that states must have a uniform system for regulating the import, transportation, and sales of alcohol.

Related Legal Terms and Issues

  • Amendment – An article that has been added to the Constitution of the United States.
  • Legislature – The legislative body of a country or state.
  • Ratify – To sign or consent to making something valid.
  • Repeal – To revoke a law or an act of congress.

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